Why Giving Matters

Quenching Our Thirst for Clean Water

March 3, 2015

Each year, 3.4 million people die from cholera, E. coli, typhoid and other diseases that could be avoided if they had clean drinking water. Young children are especially vulnerable, with 4,100 children under five succumbing each day from water-related diseases.

Enter Theresa Dankovich, PhD’12, whose doctoral research with Chemistry professor Derek Gray led to an inexpensive and effective filter treatment that has the potential to save millions of lives. The technology, while advanced, is deceptively simple. As silver particles are particularly good at killing bacteria, Dankovich had the brainwave of impregnating paper with silver quantum dots, essentially nano-sized “polka dots,” that act as a deadly net for bacteria.

The result is something Dankovich calls “drinkable paper”: a filter capable of rendering dangerous water as safe as the tap water in most North American cities. “Drinkable paper” won the McGill Faculty of Science’s 2010 Reginald Fessenden Prize for Science Innovation, established through a gift by Fessenden’s descendant Erik Blachford to support research that could lead to useful products.

“Winning the Fessenden Prize encouraged me to look for entrepreneurship ventures for this project,” says Dankovich. “But it took a couple of years before anything happened.”

When something did happen, Dankovich had graduated from McGill and was continuing her research as a University of Virginia post-doctoral fellow. Her field studies had taken her to South Africa to gather water samples from untreated sources – such a streams and canals – that provided drinking water for many poor people, to test whether the paper would kill the e coli and coliform bacteria found in these sources (it did). While carrying out this field work, Dankovich was contacted by DDB, an international advertising agency. “What do they want with me?,” she wondered.

The answer leads back to McGill. Several months before graduating, Dankovich had participated in the University’s first “Three Minutes to Change the World” event showcasing sustainability research, sponsored by the Office of Sustainability, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, and the Post-Graduate Students Society. Her presentation on drinkable paper, “Silver Linings for Water Woes,” had been recorded and posted on YouTube, where it caught the attention of people at DDB, a major advertising company that supports the non-profit WATERisLIFE, an organization working to provide safe drinking water to communities lacking this basic need. DDB connected Dankovich to WATERisLIFE and developed an advertisement for drinkable paper; funding to produce and distribute her innovation soon followed. 

“WATERisLIFE was attracted to the idea because it is affordable and could include an educational component,” says Dankovich.

Working with WATERisLIFE, she gathered sheets of drinkable paper together to form a Drinkable Book, each page of which can filter up to one month’s worth of drinking water. Each page also features a health care message printed in food-based dye, as many potential victims of water-borne diseases are simply not aware of the dangers of unclean water.

Now a post-doctoral associate at Carnegie Melon University, Dankovich is also the lead scientist developing the Drinkable Book. Depending on the outcome of ongoing field tests, the coming year will see Drinkable Books distributed to regions in dire need of clean drinking water.

With its genesis in Derek Gray’s Chemistry research lab, and supported by the Fessenden Prize and activities such as “Three Minutes to Change the World,” the Drinkable Book is poised to become a classic – and a lifesaver.